15 Lessons From Regular People Who Achieved Financial Independence

Financial independence
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This story originally appeared on NewRetirement.com.

Most people struggle and worry about being able to retire in their mid- to late 60s. At that point, you are expected to have hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of dollars in your retirement accounts, get additional money from Social Security and also get some government assistance with health care insurance. Even then, retiring securely can feel impossibly hard. What you really want is total financial independence — forever.

Maybe you are already retired and have a dreadful feeling that you simply don’t have enough.

Many people have been there, done that and retired. Some even have a passion to teach others how they did it via their writings in books, blogs and online courses.

This past week, I read through hundreds of articles from dozens of blogs to discover 15 of the top lessons from regular people who have achieved total financial independence.

1. Spend less on highest-cost items

Woman using a smartphone in her car
RossHelen / Shutterstock.com

If you save 50% on an item, that sounds pretty impressive. But if that item was a bottle of $1 shampoo, you really only kept 50 cents in your pocket.

J.D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly explains that if you want to retire early, you’ve got to focus on your high-cost items. Namely, your:

  • Home
  • Car
  • Food

The average person will spend over $2,000 a month on these categories alone. If you want to retire or retire early, the solution is simple: Spend less. And, you can do it easily by focusing all of your efforts on reducing the big dogs: home, car and food expenses.

Need more inspiration? Here are eight ways to save BIG. Or, listen to this podcast interview with J.D. Roth.

2. Know your target savings rate

Happy woman holding cash
Dean Drobo / Shutterstock.com

When do you want to retire? In five, 15, 25 years? The math behind how much you need to save to achieve these targets is shockingly simple. Just ask Mr. Money Mustache — an engineer who retired when he was only 30.

Even though the math is supposedly simple, MMM made it even simpler by putting together a target savings rate table.

If you currently have zero and want to retire in:

  • Five years: You’ll need to save 80% of your income.
  • 15 years: Save 55% of your income.
  • 25 years: Put away 35% of your income.

Most of you have already been working for a few decades, so these numbers might not mean as much as it does for those who are just starting out (especially if you haven’t been putting 80% of your income away all your life). So, what numbers are relevant for you?

If you have consistently put away:

  • 10% of your income, you’ll likely have to work for 51 years before you retire.
  • 15% of your income, your time in the workforce is 43 years.
  • 20% of your income, you’ll probably have enough money to retire after 37 years in the workforce.

Want to retire sooner? Simple. Just up your savings rate.

Try different scenarios in the top-rated NewRetirement retirement planning calculator.

3. Don’t rule out part-time work in retirement

Senior Grocery Worker
wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

When most people retire, they assume they’ll never work another day in their lives. And if they have to do that, they consider themselves a failure in retirement.

Jonathan Clements, from HumbleDollar, disagrees.

According to Clements, “Working a few days each week could greatly ease any financial strain, while adding richness to your retirement.”

So, if you have to (or want to) work in retirement, don’t sweat it. There are countless others who do the same.

Explore “14 Reasons Why Retirement Jobs Are the Best” and listen to our interview with Clements on the NewRetirement podcast, where he discusses money, behavior and happiness.

4. Start with simple retirement models

Woman with calculator
wizdata1 / Shutterstock.com

Before putting together a complex assortment of facts and figures, Darrow Kirkpatrick (retired at 50 years old) champions the idea of keeping things simple. He says:

“The best way to get a useful model going is to input a small number of initial assumptions, then calculate and check the results carefully, year by year. Once you are certain those initial numbers are behaving as expected, you can begin adding more data, more financial events, and refining your model.”

He compares retirement planning to constructing a puzzle. You don’t try to put all the pieces together at once. You start with a corner, add a piece, add another and then slowly put together the entire puzzle one piece at a time. The same should be true with your retirement planning.

Instead of putting all of your numbers into a complex tool right off the bat, put in only a few, confirm the number and then go back and model in other likely scenarios. In the end, you’ll be much more confident in your number and you’ll understand it completely.

5. Map out what you spend today to better understand tomorrow

Couple sitting down to budget
Rido / Shutterstock.com

There are tons of people today who have absolutely no idea how much they spend from month to month. And, not only do they not know the amount that they’re spending, they probably couldn’t even tell you where half of it is going.

If you have absolutely no idea where your money is going today, you have little chance of grasping where it will go 10 to 30 years from now.

In Darrow Kirkpatrick’s book “Retiring Sooner,” he discusses several ways to assess your living expenses quickly and easily. So if you’re one of the people who doesn’t know where your money is going, take some notes from Kirkpatrick and get a handle on your spend today so that you can have a blissful, easy retirement.

6. Have no regrets

mimagephotography / Shutterstock.com

When you think of regrets in retirement, you might only consider the regret of retiring too early and running out of money. But that’s not the only outcome you should fear.

Physician on FIRE (who retired at age 39) warns us also of retiring too late.

Don’t let all your worries stop you. Remember, you’re not going to experience all of the following:

  • Get cancer.
  • Have Alzheimer’s.
  • Get into a car accident.
  • Experience three stock market crashes.
  • Lose your pension.
  • Get sued.

If all of those things happened to you, it honestly doesn’t matter if you can cover all the expenses. Your life is going to be difficult regardless.

The point of modeling is to protect yourself against the likely fears, not every one. Wait too long to retire, and you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life. Sure, your kids might enjoy the millions that you’ll never be able to spend, but I bet they’d much rather have your time instead.

7. Get out of debt already

Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley / Shutterstock.com

The Wealthy Accountant, Keith “Taxguy,” is certainly someone you want to listen to. He’s worth over $12 million and hasn’t held a conventional job since he was 22 years old.

He says it plain and simple:

“When you are in debt, the clock works against you. Every morning when you wake — weekends, holidays, sick days, birthdays and work days — you are already behind. The mortgage, credit card, car loan, etcetera, all tacked on interest the second after midnight. Long before you rolled out of bed and poured your first cup of coffee, you need to work to pay the interest before you have money for food, clothing, shelter or entertainment.”

The takeaway is that debt is just adding to your expenses. Pay your debts off as fast as possible and invest heavily once they’re gone. It’s easy to do once you don’t have a payment in the world.

8. Never take on a mortgage that’s more than three times your income

Woman packing boxes for a home move
lassedesignen / Shutterstock.com

Most people go to the bank and ask the question, “How much will you lend me?” The bank tells them the maximum that they’d be comfortable forking over, then the borrowers go out and find the best house for that amount of money.

Without realizing it, these folks just became house poor. Hopefully, they really love the house, because they won’t have enough money to do anything outside of those four walls for many years to come.

Passive Income MD gives us a great rule of thumb when it comes to getting a mortgage -– never exceed three times your annual income.

If you are currently in over your head, downsize. You won’t regret minimizing your debt down the road.

9. Max out your 401(k)

Mirco Vacca / Shutterstock.com

You hear this all the time, but are you actually doing it? Are you putting the maximum amount allowed into your 401(k) each year? Joe Udo, from Retire by 40, admits that he didn’t max it out every year. But by maxing out his retirement nearly every year, he was able to build up a $640,000 nest egg before his 40th birthday. Not too shabby.

If you still haven’t started to max out your contributions, it’s better late than never. Do nothing and you’ll have way more regrets than if you get started today.

If you’re over age 50, be sure to use catch-up contributions

10. Pay as little to Uncle Sam as possible

Cutting taxes
pathdoc / Shutterstock.com

In 2012, Justin, from Root of Good (retired at 33), earned $140,000 and paid just $600 in taxes. In 2013, he did even better. He earned $150,000 and paid $150.

“We didn’t go anything sneaky or illegal,” Justin explained. He and his wife simply invested in all the tax-advantaged accounts:

  • 401(k)s
  • Traditional IRAs
  • Health savings accounts
  • 457 plan
  • 529 college savings account

That, and they paid for child care with a flexible spending account through his wife’s work.

His motto is to keep things simple, but also to keep the government’s hands off his money. If you can do this just half as well as Justin, you’ll be well on your way to total financial independence.

11. The miracle of compound interest

individual retirement account
Don Mammoser / Shutterstock.com

“Saving a high percentage of income is only half the battle. You can’t just put fat stacks of cash under your mattress and expect to get rich.” — Go Curry Cracker

If you can earn 10% a year on investments, it takes approximately seven years for your money to double. In another seven years, it would double again. Wait another seven, and it doubles again.

So, $100,000 becomes $200,000, which doubles to $400,000, and then doubles one more time to make $800,000. If you can hold off another seven years, you can have yourself a cool $1.6 million. Not too shabby when you consider that you only had $100,000 28 years ago. That’s the power of compounding.

Put that money under your mattress, and you’d have just $100,000. That is, unless you had a house fire.

As Bill Bernstein said in his NewRetirement podcast interview:

“I’m going to sound kind of insensitive and cruel, I suppose, but when someone tells you that [that they are not invested and are holding cash], what they’re effectively telling you is that they’re extremely undisciplined. And they can’t execute a strategy and that’s the kind of person who probably does need an adviser. If you sold out in 2007 or 2008 and you’ve been in cash ever since, you’ve got a very seriously flawed process and you’re probably managing your own money.”

You have got to be invested in order to get ahead.

12. Your retirement won’t go as planned

Retired man
Chaay_Tee / Shutterstock.com

If you retire at age 60, you could easily have 30 years or more of retirement life ahead of you. When you were 30, could you have predicted you’d be where you are at age 60?

Of course not.

The same is true for your retirement years, “And that’s OK!” explains Steve from Think, Save, Retire (retired at age 35). You can do all the planning and forecasting you want, but you’ll never be able to predict what will happen to you personally, professionally, relationship-wise or financially over the next 30 or more years.

In early retirement, Steve thought he was going to:

  • Exercise more
  • Blog more
  • And read more

He doesn’t, and for reasons he hadn’t thought of when he handed in his two weeks’ notice.

Be ready to be flexible and able to make updates to your overall financial plan.

13. Keep it simple

Retiree relaxing
eggeegg / Shutterstock.com

Sam at Financial Samurai is a smart guy. After all, he worked as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs for 13 years. Very few have those credentials on their resume.

After all that experience and knowledge of the markets, his advice to achieve early retirement is not a stock tip and not even a sector analysis. His advice: Keep it simple.

Spend less, earn more and invest all you can. That’s it. There’s power in that message, especially considering the source.

14. Invest for growth, then income

Female Investment Adviser and Client
Kinga / Shutterstock.com

ESI Money’s blogger retired in his early 50s and has practiced exactly what he’s preaching today. His message: “Invest for growth and then income.”

What does that mean? He goes on to explain and outlines the following:

  • Max out your 401(k) and invest in index funds (growth).
  • Invest in rental properties (a combination of growth and income).
  • Consider person to person (P2P) investing (income).

Also, option three could include annuities — another tool that helps build up a consistent income for your retirement years.

Why growth, then income? Simple. You first want to get your nest egg going and grow your investments quickly out of the gate so you can capitalize on compound interest. Then, in order to retire early, it’s best if you invest in multiple income sources that can float you until you hit the magic age of 59½, when you can start withdrawing from your retirement accounts without penalty.

15. Breaking up with your career is hard to do

Man reviewing investments
GaudiLab / Shutterstock.com

Even if you hate your job and have a “countdown to retirement” clock on your desk at work, you’ll still likely have difficulty when you finally give that job the old heave-ho.

Jacob, from Early Retirement Extreme, likens it to a long-term marriage. A breakup from your longtime spouse is sure to be difficult. You think the escape will be nothing but sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not always that easy.

The same is true of your job. Expect it.

Better yet, set up a future for yourself in other areas — self-employment, volunteering or starting that part-time gig we mentioned above. When you’ve already moved on to the next thing mentally, letting go of the old boat anchor becomes that much easier to do.

Important lessons on financial independence — takeaways

financial success
Dean Drobot / Shutterstock.com

As with almost anything, you dive into something expecting to find the hidden secret or the magical takeaway and the results are quite obvious and underwhelming.

This analysis was no different.

If you want to retire well and retire early, you should simply live modestly, get rid of all your debts, earn a solid income, forecast what you need (but be flexible) and invest heavily. That’s really all there is to it. Dig any deeper and you’re just wasting your time.

The most valuable information here were the items that hardly anyone talks about:

  • Being willing to work after retirement.
  • Having an understanding that even the best-laid plans are futile — you’re never going to predict exactly what will happen over a 30-year span. It’s impossible.
  • Retirement is not all unicorns and angelic choirs. It’s just the next challenge in life worth conquering.

Go in with the right mindset, understand what happiness truly means for you and never stop working toward the goals that will take you there.

We hope the NewRetirement retirement planning calculator can help you.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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